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Explaining the Grumpy Old Men (and Bettina)

By Paul Norton - posted Friday, 15 February 2002


One of the curious features of public intellectual life in the English-speaking world is that many leading voices of the Right began their political and intellectual engagement on the Left. David Horowitz in the US and Paul Johnson in the UK are perhaps the two best known, but Australia seems particularly generously endowed with this type. Names like Padraic P. McGuinness, Keith Windschuttle, Piers Akerman, Ross Terrill, Bob Catley, Bettina Arndt, Michael Thompson, Christopher Pearson, Michael Duffy and Max Teichmann come readily to mind.

All have followed much the same trajectory, with a few minor wobbles. All began, in the 1960s and 1970s (occasionally the 1950s), as enthusiasts for the whole panoply of New Left politics: socialism (usually of some revolutionary sort); militant unionism; opposition to the Vietnam War, US imperialism and most things American; armed national liberation movements in the Third World; new social movements in the West such as student power, feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, gay liberation, and so forth. Yet all, over the past couple of decades, have renounced the canon of the New Left for that of the New Right: neo-liberal economics and a labour market "freed" by deunionisation; neo-conservative kulturkampf against feminists, greenies, queers and republicans, enthusiasm for American military assertion and Australia's US alliance, opposition to multiculturalism and reconciliation with indigenous Australians, and barracking for the Howard government.

So is there anything wrong with this? People change, and so do their opinions. Rational people revise their views in the light of deeper reflection on an issue, or new information which warrants a change of mind. However, most of the people I've mentioned haven't simply changed their mind on this or that issue in the light of deeper thinking and fresh facts. They have reversed their entire political outlook, renounced the worldview they promulgated through the first two or three decades of their adult political and professional lives, and embraced its diametric opposite. And there are a number of things to question about this.

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Firstly, it is not a trivial matter to reverse one's position on even one of the big issues in public intellectual life, let alone all of them. Renouncing a deep commitment to socialism for an equally ardent advocacy of neo-liberalism is something a wise person would only do after much reading, deep thinking, intense discussions and significant experiences. Ditto for renouncing feminism and queer liberation for the traditional family, secular liberalism for Christian conservatism, indigenous self-determination for Howard-style assimilationism, pacifism for the Cold War and the War on Terror. Yet our ex-leftists of the New Right have swung about face on all these questions, and more, in a matter of a few years. One can't help wondering whether these conversions could really have been preceded by the deep thinking the issues deserve, or whether their original positions were all that well informed and carefully considered in the first place. I wonder about both.

The scope of our ex-leftists' recantation has other implications. If someone decides that the beliefs they have lived by (and usually lived off) for twenty or thirty years are not merely amiss, but entirely wrong, the first lesson they should draw from this is that they are capable of error. And if they are wise they would accept that their capacity for error has probably not been exhausted in their youthful excesses; that the change in what they believe must be accompanied by a change in how they believe; and that their public intellectual engagement, if it continues, should henceforth be more modest, less dogmatic, less triumphal, more open-minded and, above all, more generous and respectful to opposing views - which will often be views they once held. Yet how often do Australia’s ex-leftist brigade achieve any such civility and equanimity in their contemporary interventions?

To take the point further. When McGuinness, Windschuttle, Arndt, Akerman, etc., contest left-liberal or radical positions on current issues, their arguments are always accompanied by the imputation of evil motives to proponents of those positions, most often pursuit of a self-interested hidden agenda of the "chattering classes". Thus environmentalism is a plot by the "new class" to enrich themselves and extend their control over the economy, feminism is a Trojan Horse for family breakdown, rising crime and "chardonnay set" capture of the Labor Party, reconciliation has a hidden agenda of territorially fragmenting Australia, and all critics of the US and Australian response to September 11 are traitors.

The question this begs is: what motivated our ex-leftists to propound these and similar positions in the recent past? Was it the same greed, power-lust, nihilism and treachery which they impute to the current generation of leftists? If so, then why should we credit the innocence of their motives now? Did their proneness to moral turpitude vanish as miraculously as their capacity for intellectual error when they turned Right? Or were they well-meaning dupes of the real powers behind the New Left agenda? If so, how can we have confidence that they are less easily fooled, or not being used, today? Especially when the vested financial and political interests with which their current views converge are more obvious than the "new class" interests which are supposedly served by, for instance, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps we are asked to accept that the ex-leftists were, in their day, both propelled by virtuous motives and steered by sound judgement in their advocacy of socialism, pacifism, Third World revolution, feminism, Aboriginal rights, etc.; and that it was only after their own turn Right that their erstwhile views became the preserve of traitors, wreckers, grafters and totalitarians. Apart from the problem that our ex-leftists didn't all roll over at the same time (meaning at least some must have stayed Left when it became morally suspect), this view also entails accepting that barrackers for Chairman Mao and Pol Pot in the 1970s had purer motives and sounder judgement than supporters of asylum seekers in 2002. For these and other reasons, it is a very silly argument, and it seems much more sensible to accept that those left-wing positions which could be held by people of good judgment and good faith in the 1970s (whether one agreed with them or not) continued to be so in the 1990s and into the new millennium, and ought to be debated as such without the name-calling and conspiracy theories.

The irony is that for all their conspicuous apostasy, in one crucial respect the beliefs of our grumpy old men of the Right (plus Bettina) remain unchanged from then they were angry young men of the Left (plus Bettina). Earlier I suggested that each of the big issues of public intellectual life can be considered sui generis, and that the linkages between them can be thought through likewise rather than following automatically, and being able to be read off, from some master narrative such as Marxism-Leninism. To use some post-structuralist language, the connections a left-libertarian like myself might make between unionism, feminism, environmentalism and so forth are contingent articulations between distinct discourses. None of these discourses necessarily implies any of the others, and different connections and combinations thereof can be and have been made by thoughtful people of various persuasions.

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This was not so for your typical New Leftist, and is still not so for contemporary Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists, for whom all of these commitments can be justified and their connections explained within a totalising (usually Leninist) ideology, and in no other way; and invariably in combination with an indulgent attitude towards some version of "actually existing socialism", a romanticisation of armed Third World revolutionaries, and an obsessive dislike of "actually existing Zionism" (i.e. Israel). This ironclad linking of ideas which don't have any necessary logical association is called a "chain of equivalence" in discourse theory. The "chain" metaphor is apt, both because "chains of equivalence" are often intellectually binding, and because if a member of a group bound by such a chain has any doubts about a single one of the beliefs thus connected, they may find their comrades telling them: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" I can vouch for this, having twice been sent to coventry by the sectarian marxist Left for being "soft on the bloody Zionists".

And it is the New Left chain of discursive equivalence (with the odd kink) which the ex-leftist brigade has dragged along behind them when they defected to the New Right; allowing them to link together anti-feminism, anti-anti-capitalism, anti-anti-racism, etc., into a chain of authoritarian, totalising anti-leftism mirroring the authoritarian romantic leftism of their youth. This is the real significance of Robert Manne's ousting as Quadrant editor, supported and applauded by the ex-leftist gang, over his editorial sympathy for the Stolen Generations. According to one defender of the New Right faith from Manne's heresy, Quadrant was not founded just to oppose totalitarianism, but to fight all manifestations of the "Jacobin temptation", one of which, it seems, is reconciliation with indigenous Australians. Over two decades of impeccable anti-communist conservative commitment could not save Manne from being purged as a traitor to the Right. One doubts that the current ex-leftist management of Quadrant would even publish, let alone civilly discuss, such unseasonal thoughts by the journal’s Cold War stalwarts as Frank Knopfelmacher's support for feminism, Bob Santamaria's anti-capitalism, James Macauley's concern for the environment or Greg Sheridan's anti-racist compassion for asylum seekers.

Finally, the reference to concern for the Stolen Generations as a Jacobin outrage should remind us that the modern ex-leftist gang lacks even the saving grace of novelty. Early in the Cold War a group of communist literati, who had reacted to the horrors of Stalinism by becoming anti-communists, released a collection of confessional essays titled The God That Failed. This book was incisively reviewed by maverick Marxist Isaac Deutscher in his essay "The Ex-Communists' Conscience". Deutscher's analysis will surprise nobody who has read this far:

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About the Author

Dr Paul Norton teaches and researches in the Department of Politics & Public Policy and the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University.

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